Latest Updates: Bezos and Blue Origin Crew Prepare for Flight to Space
The Amazon founder is poised to lift off from a site in West Texas with three other people, fulfilling a key goal of his private rocket company.,
Another week, another billionaire with a rocket company going to space.
Last week, it was Richard Branson earning his astronaut wings riding a space plane from Virgin Galactic, a company he founded 14 years ago, to an altitude of more than 50 miles above the skies of New Mexico.
On Tuesday, it will be Jeff Bezos, the richest human being in the universe, who will strap into a capsule built by his rocket company, Blue Origin, and blast off even higher, to more than 62 miles above West Texas.
Blue Origin had been aiming for the rocket to take off at 9 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, July 20. The company will begin coverage of the launch at 7:30 a.m. on its YouTube channel, or you can watch it in the video player embedded above. The date coincides with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Just after 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the four passengers arrived at a bridge atop the launch platform, with each ringing a bell hung at one end before crossing to the capsule. They then began boarding the capsule one at a time, as support staff assisted them. The hatch of the capsule was closed shortly before 8:45 a.m.
A brief hold in the countdown occurred, which will likely cause a short delay from the scheduled lift off time.
While other space entrepreneurs have highlighted their rivalry with Mr. Bezos’ company in recent weeks, those competitors wished him and Blue Origin well in the hours ahead of the launch. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, tweeted “Best of luck” to Blue Origin early on Tuesday morning. Virgin Galactic on Monday bid Mr. Bezos and company “a successful and safe flight.”
New Shepard, the Blue Origin spacecraft, is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. It consists of a booster and a capsule on top, where the passengers will be.
Unlike Virgin Galactic’s space plane, New Shepard is more of a traditional rocket, taking off vertically. Once the booster has used up its propellant — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen — the capsule detaches from the booster.
Both pieces continue to coast upward, above the 62-mile boundary often considered to be the beginning of outer space. During this part of the trajectory, the passengers will unbuckle and float around the capsule, experiencing about four minutes of free fall and seeing views of Earth and the blackness of space from the capsule’s large windows.
The booster lands first and vertically, similar to the touchdowns of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. The capsule lands minutes after the booster, descending under a parachute and cushioned by the firing of a last-second jet of air. The whole flight should last about 10 minutes.
Blue Origin has launched New Shepard 15 times — all without anyone onboard — and the capsule landed safely every time. (On the first launch, the booster crashed; on the next 14 launches, the booster landed intact.)
During one flight in 2016, Blue Origin performed an in-flight test of the rocket’s escape system where thrusters whisked away the capsule from a malfunctioning booster.
A solid-fuel rocket at the bottom of the crew capsule fired for 1.8 seconds, exerting 70,000 pounds of force to quickly separate the capsule and steer it out of the way of the booster. Its parachutes deployed, and the capsule landed softly.
Not only did the capsule survive, the booster was able to right itself, continue to space, and then, firing its engine again, land a couple of miles north of the launchpad in West Texas, a bit charred but intact.
Still, the federal government does not impose regulations for the safety of passengers on a spacecraft like New Shepard. Unlike commercial passenger jetliners, the rocket has not been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Indeed, the F.A.A. is prohibited by law from issuing any such requirements until 2023.
The rationale is that emerging space companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic need a “learning period” to try out designs and procedures and that too much regulation, too soon would stifle innovation that would lead to better, more efficient designs.
The passengers must sign forms acknowledging “informed consent” to the risks, similar to what you sign if you go skydiving or bungee jumping.
What the F.A.A. does regulate is ensuring safety for people not on the plane — that is, if anything does go wrong, that the risk to the “uninvolved public” on ground is minuscule.
Mr. Bezos is bringing along his younger brother. Mark Bezos, 50, has lived a more private life. He is a co-founder and general partner at HighPost Capital, a private equity firm. Mark Bezos previously worked as head of communications at the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity that aids anti-poverty efforts in New York City.
Blue Origin auctioned off one of the seats, with the proceeds going to Club for the Future, a space-focused charity founded by Mr. Bezos. The winning bidder paid $28 million — and we still do not know who that was.
Last week, the company announced that the auction winner had decided to wait until a subsequent flight “due to scheduling conflicts.”
Instead, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands who was one of the runners-up in the auction, and who had purchased a ticket on the second New Shepard flight, was bumped up.
The fourth passenger is Mary Wallace Funk — she goes by Wally — a pilot who in the 1960s was among a group of women who passed the same rigorous criteria that NASA used for selecting astronauts.
At 82, Wally Funk will be the oldest person to ever have gone to space. But that is not what makes her so special.
In 1961, three years before Jeff Bezos was born, Ms. Funk and 12 other women went through testing as part of the Woman in Space Program. The tests had been designed by Dr. William Lovelace for the Mercury astronauts. He wanted to put women through the same tests to see if they would be good candidates for space.
Across the board, the women who passed that initial round of testing did as well or better than their male counterparts, and of that group, Ms. Funk excelled.
When you hear about these women today, they are often called the Mercury 13, but they called themselves the FLATs: First Lady Astronaut Trainees.
None of those women have gone into space. The U.S. government shut down the program just as the Cold War space race was heating up. Ms. Funk said that when she learned the program was canceled, she wasn’t discouraged.
Over the years, she applied four times to be an astronaut and was turned down because she had never gotten an engineering degree. By contrast, when the astronaut John Glenn was selected for the Mercury program, he also did not have an engineering degree.
Ms. Funk has spent the past 60 years trying to find another way into space.
“I was brought up that when things don’t work out, you go to your alternative,” she said.
Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who served aboard the space shuttle and the space station, sees in the invitation a message to Ms. Funk and many more unsung women in space and aviation.
“Wally — you matter. And what you’ve done matters. And I honor you,” is what Dr. Coleman thinks Mr. Bezos is saying. She adds that “When Wally flies, we all fly with her.”
But for many women and nonbinary people involved in space and astronomy, the moment is more nuanced.
“These individual stories and victories are important, but they are not justice,” said Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
— Mary Robinette Kowal
Jeff Bezos, a child during the Apollo era, grew up fascinated by space. “Space is something that I have been in love with since I was 5 years old,” he said in 2014. “I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, and I guess it imprinted me.”
But that passion long took a back seat to his early business ventures. Mr. Bezos, now 57, first worked on Wall Street, and then started Amazon in 1994. Six years later he founded Blue Origin, the company behind the spaceship he is flying in on Tuesday. But building Amazon — his “day job,” as he once called it — consumed the vast majority of his time, as he transformed it from an online bookseller into one of the most powerful and feared retail forces ever.
In recent years he began to step back a bit from Amazon, handing more day-to-day responsibilities to deputies. He would typically spend a day a week — usually Wednesdays — focused on Blue Origin, and in 2017 he announced that he would sell $1 billion of Amazon stock a year to fund the space venture.
Amazon’s success kept propelling Mr. Bezos’s fortune higher, and in 2018, he surpassed Bill Gates to become the wealthiest person in the world. Booking trips to space rose to the top of his spending list.
“The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel,” he said, couching his investment as a form of philanthropy, after he had been criticized for not doing more to share his wealth. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” he said. “If we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power.”
“That’s the world,” he said, “that I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in.”
He briefly re-engaged in Amazon’s daily operations at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But in February, he announced plans to step down as Amazon’s chief executive. Andy Jassy, one of his top deputies, took over the role early this month.
Mr. Bezos said he wanted to devote more focus on Blue Origin and his other ventures.
“I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring,” he told Amazon employees. “I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”
Now, two weeks after officially stepping aside, he is heading to space.
For the first flight, Blue Origin auctioned off one of the seats with the proceeds going to Mr. Bezos’ space-focused nonprofit, Club for the Future. The winning bid was $28 million, an amount that stunned even Blue Origin officials, far higher than they had hoped. Blue Origin announced it will distribute $19 million of that to 19 space-related organizations — $1 million each.
The 7,600 people who participated in the auction provided Blue Origin with a list of prospective paying customers, and the company has started selling tickets for subsequent flights.
Blue Origin has declined to say what the price is or how many people have signed up, but representatives of the company say there is strong demand.
“Our early flights are going for a very good price,” Bob Smith, the chief executive of Blue Origin, said during a news conference on Sunday.
During the auction for the seat on Tuesday’s flight, the company said that auction participants could buy a seat on subsequent flights. It has not publicly stated what it charged those who placed bids, or how many seats have been sold.
Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, said that two additional flights are planned for this year. “So we have already built a robust pipeline of customers that are interested,” she said.
Virgin Galactic, the other company offering suborbital flights, has about 600 people who have already bought tickets. The price was originally $200,000 and later raised to $250,000, but Virgin Galactic stopped sales in 2014 after a crash of its first space plane during a test flight. Virgin Galactic officials say they will resume sales later this year, and the price will likely be higher than $250,000.
Blue Origin is developing a larger rocket, New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth), to launch satellites and other payloads. The first launch of New Glenn is to occur no earlier than the latter part of next year, delayed by two years.
The rocket engine that Blue Origin developed for New Glenn will also power a competing rocket, Vulcan, built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The first launch of Vulcan is to occur early next year, and will carry a robotic lander to the moon paid for by NASA.
Blue Origin also led a proposed design for a lander to take NASA astronauts back to the moon in the coming years. NASA had intended to select two lander designs, but because Congress did not provide as much money to the program as requested, NASA chose only one, from Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Blue Origin — as well as Dynetics, the third company in the competition — protested NASA’s decision with the Government Accountability Office. A decision on the protests is due in early August.
When Jeff Bezos flies into space on Tuesday, Rick Tumlinson, founding partner of the venture capital firm SpaceFund, hopes to catch a glimpse of the launch.
“To see two flights in two weeks is truly the beginning of the tipping point,” said Mr. Tumlinson, who owns property not far from Blue Origin’s launch site near Van Horn, Texas, and, like millions of other people, watched Richard Branson’s flight on Virgin Galactic’s space plane last week.
Mr. Tumlinson isn’t alone in his excitement. Space start-up founders and investors see Mr. Bezos’ and Mr. Branson’s suborbital flights driving additional interest to the space industry. They shrug off criticisms over Mr. Bezos, Mr. Branson and SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk pouring some of their billions into the private space race.
And their high-profile launches come as investor funding pours into space start-ups, fueling companies that are working to make satellites smaller and launches more accessible. Space start-ups raised over $7 billion in 2020, twice as much as two years earlier, and are on track to continue that rise this year, according to the space analytics firm BryceTech.
“The news of the day is that they’re going to put people in space,” said Charles Miller, chief executive of the satellite internet start-up Lynk. But he believes that successful private space companies will benefit humanity by making it easier to put people and satellites in orbit.
“It’s going to have a profound impact on life on Earth,” he added.
Space technology is a relatively small, tight-knit field, investors and founders said, full of people who have spent decades working for the broader interest and attention the industry is currently enjoying. And for many of them, the appearance of rivalry between Mr. Bezos, Mr. Branson and Mr. Musk is a positive for the industry, not a chance to take sides.
“Everybody got up really early to watch Branson, and everyone will watch with bated breath what happens on Bezos’ flight,” said Lisa Rich, a founder of the venture capital firm Hemisphere Ventures and the orbital mission company Xplore.
Tim Ellis, the chief executive of the 3D-printed rocket start-up Relativity Space, added: “We all cheer for each other.”
— Erin Woo